What is this human rights business, anyway?

When I decided to study in an international human rights law program, I only had a basic understanding of what “human rights” meant and what they might be, as most of us probably do. I expected to learn about how they’re interpreted and enforced around the world, but in order for their application to have any meaning at all, I needed to also study the concept and its evolution.

The history

Modern humans have been around for 200,000 years, and yet the concept of “human rights” as we’ve come to understand it today has really only been accepted in the last 100. Through the years we’ve seen many iterations of societal rules which can be placed loosely in the area of human rights precursors. For most of those years societies were organized based on divine law, tradition, and the political arrangements of the powerful. The laws that related to moral conduct were not really intended to protect individuals. Take as an example the Ten Commandments. The edicts, “You shall not…” in total establish a list of rules one is obliged to follow for the purpose of creating an orderly and stable society. The obligation not to kill doesn’t emphasize the right of an individual to live, and in fact could be interpreted as an obligation to society rather than to any other person. By and large, any protection for individuals was reserved for the powerful rather than the common person.

In the most recent centuries we saw significant changes in the structure of society. Larger, centralized States, industrialization, rapidly spreading capitalism, and the beginnings of globalization disrupted communities and social orders that had to some extent offered stability through their traditional systems.[1] Workers and marginalized groups were increasingly pressed into poorer living and working conditions with little or no social or legal protection. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the American Declaration of Independence, with their assertions that man has certain unalienable rights, both demonstrated a reaction against the increasing power of the State at the cost of the individual and mark significant movement toward modern human rights. Yet both documents in text and in practice really only protected a subset of the population – aristocratic white men. Many of the legal changes during this time granted limited protection to citizens (where “citizen” had a narrow definition) while bolstering Nations and strengthening Empires as much as possible. The abolition of the slave trade and slavery by the British in the early 1800s, for example, had more to do with the fear of growing American power than any concern for the rights of slaves or a sense of morality.

This trend continued into the 20th century, where States solidified their power in international law and granted protections to limited groups of people where it was necessary and profitable. It was finally in the aftermath of World War II that the language and attitude for addressing human rights began to change. In 1945 the United Nations was formed with the determination “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”. Subsequently, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created in 1948, finally enumerating and codifying the basic human rights the nations of the UN should aspire to protect. It begins by stating that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not legally binding, it facilitated an important shift towards the systematic protection of human rights as an obligation of Nations and of humanity as a whole, and not as the prerogative of individual States.

Following this foundational document, there have been multiple international and regional versions and implementations of human rights in law. Although these rights may be categorized and expressed differently in different places, they are intended to be universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. How well this is embodied in each system and how well the implementations serve each unique community is a constant point of discussion and revision.

The philosophy

Although so many systems of human rights protection are now in place, there continue to be violations of these rights in every State in existence. Human rights systems are, by nature, aspirational. Because no system works perfectly and no State has a way to protect all of its peoples equally, it is always going to be worthwhile to reflect on the foundations of human rights. With the countless cultures, societies, and religions worldwide, I don’t think it will ever possible in practice to have one system that suits the needs of all people. Therefore, it’s a necessary exercise for us to reflect on the elements that go into forming the ideas and motivations behind human rights and considering how they can continue to be utilized for improving the system.

So what is the objective of human rights? It can be simply (but not reductively) stated that the aim is to ensure human dignity. The Universal Declaration asserts: the right to life, liberty, security, privacy, education; freedom of thought, expression, and religion; and the freedom from slavery, torture, and discrimination, among others. This enumeration of human rights seeks to define the most basic human needs, without which we would not be able to live a dignified and fulfilled life. The denial of any of these rights does not make one any less human. It could even be argued that there are situations which make it necessary to temporarily stop protecting some of these rights, for example in times of war. But at the core, each of us deserves to have these rights ensured to us. Their codification in law can also be seen as a system of protection. We wish to protect the individual against a bureaucratic or malicious State, the minority against the majority, the weak against the powerful. Without these protections, those whose rights have been violated would not have any recourse against the State.

Another challenging question is by whose authority we hold these rights. Many people may believe that the dignity of humans is god-given, and the values we seek to protect can be derived from holy texts. But human rights are by nature supposed to be universally applicable to all people. The recognition of any one religion as the source of authority is problematic. After all, there are countless different formulations and understandings of dozens of major religions worldwide. To grant that one conception of one religion is “correct” places literally billions of other people in opposition. But to reject that the human rights we recognize today are founded in religion does not mean there cannot be a consensus on a set of rights that functions with the value systems of all peoples. In fact, the diversity of motivations for protecting human rights, across cultures and religions, only serves to inform and enrich the systems we create.

In practice, the authority of human rights is granted only by humans. I like to think it’s human nature to empathize and care for each other, but in reality this isn’t enough to prevent massive human rights violations from occurring around the world. While human rights are the obligation of the State, we all play a role in its success and enforcement. When those in relatively comfortable or powerful positions are so separated from a disadvantaged group, they cannot empathize or they do not know the situation. This is a huge problem in our modern world, where our clothes are made in sweatshops in Bangladesh and purchased from a clean, air-conditioned stores down the road, and where the narrative of other religions or peoples is so convoluted in extremist rhetoric that we dismiss their humanity and advocate for carpet bombing and torture. The burden to protect those being harmed is on the State, but the States are accountable to us. The only thing that ensures that these rights will be respected is each of us, the respect we have for one another, and a continued dedication to the principles of human rights.

The system of human rights that has been created is not a solution to the problems we face today. But it gives maltreated people unprecedented power to respond to violations, and an obligation to all of us to continue to improve the lives of everyone. Human rights are both a standard and an aspiration. There’s so much work to be done to ensure the rights of people worldwide, but if we promote the discussion in all aspects of our legal system and personal lives, human rights law can continue to improve for people around the world.


With this post in especially, I openly welcome feedback, criticism, skepticism, and questions! I am still developing these ideas every day, and this topic can only be improved by more diverse perspectives.


Reading List:

Donnelly, Jack (2007): ‘The Relative Universality of Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 29, Issue 2, 2007, pp. 281-306.

Shestack, Jerome J. (2000). The Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights. In Symonides, J. I. (ed.) Human rights: Concept and standards. (pp. 31-66). Aldershot: Ashgate/Dartmouth.

Tomuschat, Christian (2014). Human Rights: Between Idealism and Realism. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

And thanks to Susan for the brainstorming and feedback!